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Brazilian Farm Life 09-20-19

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It is college football season! A time of year when many feel particularly close to their alma maters. Midwest universities have close ties to Brazil’s economy and agricultural history. The University of Illinois has produced a significant amount of research about Brazil’s economy. It is also the Alma Mater of a former president of the Brazilian central bank. The current minister of the economy has a PhD from the University of Chicago. Due to my ag background, I am particularly proud of the ties which Purdue University has to Embrapa.

Embrapa is the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. Its mandate is to conduct research that ensures the sustainability of agriculture and benefits the Brazilian society. Much of the research and extension work typically associated with land grant universities in the USA has been done by Embrapa and similar organizations in Brazil.

Since 1973, when it was founded by a PhD agronomist from Purdue, it has a solid track record of conducting and implementing relevant research. The soybean potential of the 1970-80s, the no-till push of the 1990s, the double crop practices of the early 2000s and the current trend of integrating cattle, crops, and forest production are all part of Embrapa’s history in Brazilian agriculture.

In the court of public opinion, Brazilian agriculture faces an uphill battle. It is a common perception that farming in Brazil is bad for the environment. The current president of Brazil has not helped this perception. Bolsonaro found favor with rural communities in Brazil by claiming that the perception that Brazilian farmers are not good for the environment doesn’t reflect reality. However, the international community has not bought this narrative.

Central Brazil is a good place for crops, cattle and trees. Embrapa has setup a research center focused on integrating these three activities. This center is located in Sinop, Mato Grosso and has made interesting progress on this research front. Farmers in Brazil have mixed opinions about this initiative, and I will let USA readers decide for themselves whether this is the beginning of an exciting new agricultural trend or whether it is mainly just an interesting research effort. All the same, it is good to be aware of it.

Much of Brazil’s underutilized land is degraded pasture that was cleared decades ago. The fertility costs involved with revitalizing these pasturelands are significant and the weight gains on cattle are often not sufficient to justify the investment. Thus, cattle crop rotations have provided an opportunity for cattle growers to generate sufficient shorter-term revenues to justify investments in land improvements.

Planting trees in rows with spacing to match equipment sizing has been added to the rotation. The most common trees used are eucalyptus, although experiments with other trees are also underway. The end market for eucalyptus varies based on locations. In Mato Grosso, most is used as an energy source for dryers or ethanol plants. Having a local, renewable source of energy has environmental benefits. Additional benefits include reduced cattle emissions, improvements to soil health and multiple revenue sources per acre. Some Brazilian farmers are advocates of this type of production method and have made substantial investments towards implementation; others are skeptical. It reminds me of the conversation surrounding no-till 20-30 years ago.

Research can be slow, imperfect and expensive. On the other hand, breakthroughs can be revolutionary, valuable and world changing. As you watch the college team of your choice kickoff this weekend, remember the research that will define agriculture in the next generation.

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